With a sea of distant heads in front of you bowed over their notes it can be very difficult to tell whether your lectures are working well or not. Students will not answer questions so you cannot tell if they understand. The normal clues are missing and the normal informal methods of finding out do not work because you will meet only a very small proportion of the students informally. It is common in very large lectures for lecturers to feel quite out of touch with their audience. You need to adopt deliberate strategies if you want to find out how you are doing.
1. Show of hands
While students may not be willing to speak up in a large lecture, they are often willing to join in a show of hands. If you ask “Who doesn’t understand that point?” you are unlikely to get much of a response. However, you can ask straightforward questions which give students some control over what happens next in the lecture; for example:
“How many of you would like another example of this method? Can I have a show of hands please?”
“Can I speed up in order to get through my remaining material? Please put your hand up if you want me to speed up.”
“Who would like a two-minute break?”
“Would you like to try tackling one of these cases yourselves? Can I see how many would like to try that?”
2. Three most important things
Listing the “three most important things” at the end of your lecture can be used as a means of summarising the lecture at its close in order to highlight its most important features. This same device can be used to check on student learning. You could say:
“I’d like to check whether I’ve got my main points across. I’d like you all to write down the three most important things about this lecture: those three things that, if you forgot everything else, would capture the essence of the lecture for you. You have two minutes”.
While students are doing this you write down what you think are the three most important things on an overhead projector transparency. When the two minutes are up you display your transparency and briefly explain your three points and why they are the most important. You then ask for a show of hands.
“Who, honestly, has written down all three of these points? Who has written down two? Who one? Who none? What other points did people consider important?”
If this seems too threatening to students you can do any of the following:
- emphasise that what is on trial is your own competence as a teacher rather than their competence as learners;
- ask for their points before revealing your own;
- collect up students’ written statements to read in private;
- emphasise the scope that exists for alternative perspectives, different conclusions, etc.
This exercise can be very salutary.
3. Instant questionnaire
Instant questionnaires are administered during lecture sessions or when the whole class is present. They require none of your paper and no advance preparation. All you have to do is display the following rating scale on an overhead projector:
A = Always true for me
B = Often true for me
C = Sometimes true for me
D = Seldom true for me
E = Never true for me
You then read out a series of perhaps six statements, which are your best guesses about what is going on in your lectures; for example:
1 I understand the lecture content.
2 I have encountered this material before.
3 My lecture notes are incomplete and probably inaccurate.
4 The pace is a bit slow.
5 I have questions which I need answers to.
6 Paying attention all through a lecture is a real struggle.
Students take a piece of their own paper and write down the numbers of the six statements. Against each they simply write down the letter which indicates whether they agree, like this:
You then simply ask students to leave their pieces of paper at the door as they leave and collate the data to see if your hunches are borne out. With very large classes you would not need to ask all students. A sample consisting of the front and back rows, and two rows in the middle, would be sufficient.
Instant questionnaire items can be thought up as a lecture is going on and jotted down for use in the last few minutes, using the following rating scale:
A = Strongly agree
B = Agree
C = Don’t know or unsure
D = Disagree
E = Strongly disagree
1 This lecture contained too much information.
2 In a room as overcrowded as this we need a break half way through.
3 I’d like to spend more time on…. in the next lecture.
4 I could use all four techniques introduced today.
5 I could explain Biggs’ theory to a friend.
6 I would like more examples of….
It is such a quick and inexpensive device that it is possible to use it regularly to check up, and to see whether steps you have taken in response to previous instant questionnaire feedback have had the desired effect.
4. The minute paper
Just before the end of the class, ask students to write a response to these questions. Please answer each question in 1 or 2 sentences:
(1) What was the most useful or meaningful thing you learned during this session?
(2) What question(s) remain uppermost in your mind as we end this session?
5. The “Muddiest” point
At the end of a lecture, ask each student to write down on a scrap of paper what, for them, was the “muddiest” point in this session – in other words, what was least clear to them. Collect these in. Look through them. Start the next session with the group by going over what were the most frequent muddiest points – ‘I am just going to go over the two/three areas that you had most trouble with last time’.
This technique was developed by Dr. Frederick Mosteller, a professor of statistics at Harvard University. For a detailed account of its development and use, see his article, The “Muddiest Point in the Lecture” as a Feedback Device in On Teaching and Learning: The Journal of the Harvard-Danforth Centre, Volume 3, April 1989, pages 10-21
Ivan was previously Director of the Centre for Learner Autonomy (one of the SHU CETLs) and is a strong and articulate advocate of experiential learning. He is now HE Curriculum Advisor for the Royal Academy of Engineering, and has published the document above as part of the National HE STEM programme.